Grace Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2018, Lent 1B
A Psalm of Paths
The novelist, essayist, and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner offered, in his collection The Alphabet of Grace, an unusual idea for how one might examine one’s own spiritual condition. Introspection, he suggested, could not be completely effective, because (in his words) “every time you draw back to look at yourself, you are seeing everything except the part that drew back, and when you draw back to look at the part that drew back to look at yourself, you see again everything except for what you are really looking for.” In the end, he concluded, perhaps the best way to see and examine yourself at your truest and most honest was to follow, of all things, your feet: “…when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, this is who you are.”
Perhaps the psalmist would not put it quite that way, but on some level it seems as though this author grasps the truth represented in the statement. One thing to which the psalmist returns, after passages calling on God for protection and mercy, is the assertion that the Lord would lead, particularly along “the paths of the Lord” as verse 10 finally says.
The passage from the psalm that we have read together falls into a pattern in which the psalmist first expresses a concern – not being put to shame in verses 1-3, or being held accountable for former sins in 6-7 – and then seeks consolation in the Lord, consolation tied specifically to seeking and following the paths of the Lord.
The two responses are not exactly the same; verses 4-5 have the quality of a prayer, seeking instruction in God’s ways, God’s paths, and God’s truth. Instruction is key; the word “teach” turns up twice, along with the more convoluted but similar construction “make me to know.” Maybe the most striking part of this section, though, is how it ends: “for you I wait all day long.”
Waiting comes in for a hard time with us humans. We don’t like it. We moderns are particularly good at being impatient, and the idea of waiting offends us. I remember in my teaching days the informal and not at all true guide to how long students in a class had to wait for a late professor before taking off – five minutes for an assistant professor, ten minutes for an associate, fifteen for a full professor. Or how many advertisements promise “no waiting,” or “instant credit,” or any number of other possible immediate-gratification possibilities. In short, we take waiting as a burden at best, and invoking the idea during the newly-begun season of Lent only adds to the aura of burden and bane that accumulates around waiting.
That’s not how the psalmist sees it, not at all. For one thing, the psalmist waits “all day long,” as the verse says. For another, the psalmist has made it clear that the instruction of the Lord is worth waiting for. The language comes up again later in the psalm, outside of our reading, making clear that the waiting is a thing of integrity and goodness.
Yesterday, while trying to struggle through writing this sermon, my attention was caught by a photograph that appeared in multiple locations on social media. In the picture a young boy is clearly seated in a movie theater, with a huge tub of popcorn on his lap and a large drink in the cupholder beside him; clearly a parent is taking the picture. What is most arresting is the boy’s eyes. The anticipation in those eyes speaks of the anticipation of Christmas morning and birthday and basically every other good thing a child can possibly imagine. In this case, the boy is waiting for the start of the new superhero movie Black Panther that opened this weekend. Clearly, waiting was not burdensome or unbearable for this child. It was in its own way part of the joy of being there at that movie.
So seldom do we take such joy in waiting. Ultimately, we don’t wait, most of the time. We turn aside, following other less demanding paths – the path of financial security, or patriotism, or social stature, or political party, or a nice stash of automatic weapons – anything in which we can claim security that is ours to control and manipulate, and that doesn’t involve waiting. To put it in terms we might recognize, we “take charge of our own lives,” or we “go our own way” – it always sounds good whenever we put it that way. Sometimes those paths don’t take us into such horrible places; we don’t turn into ogres or monsters or abusers, but nonetheless we are separating ourselves further and further from the paths of God, slowly dying to all the things that matter even as we “live our best lives now.” We find ourselves wealthy or powerful or secure, and cold and unfeeling.
No, the paths and instruction of God are not easy, no matter how much they may be worth the wait. But they are, as the psalmist ultimately reminds us, “steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.” God’s instruction is where life is.
Of course, this last passage introduces another unpopular word. If we don’t like waiting, we surely rebel against being instructed in humility. That might be even worse. Look what I’ve accomplished, we say. Look what I’ve made of myself. I’ve earned the right to be proud of what I’ve done and who I am. Leaving aside for now the theological shakiness of not recognizing the gifts of God in what we have done in our lives, again we are separating ourselves from the paths of the Lord, from the instruction in goodness and righteousness and faithfulness and love that is part of what God is longing to show us and give us.
To return to Frederick Buechner’s instruction about watching our feet, where do they lead us? What paths are they following, even if we little recognize it? “Wherever your feet take you, that is who you are”? May our feet take us on paths of righteousness and love, goodness and uprightness, truth and salvation. May we be blessed in the waiting and sure and steadfast in the journeying. May our Lent be one of seeking the wisdom and love found in those paths, and following these paths of instruction with grateful hearts.
For the paths of the Lord, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #396, Brethren, We Have Met to Worship; #420, Lord, to You My Soul Is Lifted (Psalm 25); #417, Lord Jesus, Think on Me; #339, Lift Every Voice and Sing